On a recent morning, with rain clouds hanging overhead, a man named Ambrosio was standing on a busy street corner in Portland, waiting for the public library to open.
Ambrosio hails from Guinea-Bissau, a small country in West Africa. He said he worked in construction for nearly 20 years before coming to the United States to seek asylum last year.
He said he has been on the streets for just over a month now that the city’s shelters are at capacity. In Portuguese, he said he would sleep wherever he could find a place and sometimes stay at the local church.
But that could change soon. Ambrosio said he found a one-bedroom apartment in south Portland. The landlord is happy to accept her vouchers for general rentals while she waits for a work permit.
Ambrosio is one of thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived in Maine in recent years. Not eligible for federal housing assistance such as Section 8 vouchers and, under federal law, unable to work for at least 180 days after applying for asylum, many are unable to afford rent, food and other necessities. relies on common subsidies to cover
Cities that have hosted large numbers of asylum seekers, such as Portland, have significantly expanded their GA programs.
“We have had to increase our budget by millions of dollars over the last two years and two fiscal years in terms of general assistance. We estimate it to be 85%.
In nearby South Portland, where asylum seekers make up about 60% of recipients, the GA budget has increased by 407% compared to 2019.
GA is administered at the local level, with the state reimbursing municipalities for 70% of the cost of benefits. West said Portland has also received additional reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the pandemic.
But that extra money is due to run out by the end of this month. To avoid what she calls a funding cliff, West is urging lawmakers to pass legislation now in Congress that would raise the state’s share of her GA costs to 90% of hers.
“So we’re really looking for Congress to help us raise that funding,” she said. is not sustainable.”
The bill is now before Congress’s Health and Human Services Committee, which is due to give public testimony on the proposed GA reform bill on Friday.
State officials say there are many factors driving GA costs to rise, including the end of pandemic-era relief programs and the state’s ongoing affordable housing crisis.
Harrison Deah, who manages Westbrook’s GA program and is president of the Maine Welfare Director Association, said the financial and administrative burden is particularly acute in cities that host large numbers of asylum seekers.
But Deah said, in the face of an aging population and shrinking labor force, helping new immigrants while they wait for work permits is seen as an investment in the state’s economic future. said it should.
“These people will come in and they’ll contribute at some point when they can,” Deah said. We’ll be able to do it, and we’ll be able to do all of that, and it will benefit the entire state.”
In Portland, West expressed a similar view.
But some lawmakers say the state’s GA program is too generous. Health and Human Services Commissioner Eric Blakey, State Senator R-Androscoggin, introduced legislation that, among other things, created a 180-day state residency requirement to receive GA benefits.
“The goal here is to make sure our general assistance program catches people who are long-time residents of the state who are going through hard times and need help,” he said. .
In 2015, the Maine legislature, with bipartisan support, passed a law making GA accessible to most noncitizens. But former Gov. Paul Lepage tried to limit his eligibility under that law, preventing many immigrants from receiving benefits.
In 2019, Governor Janet Mills rescinded these measures, allowing most asylum seekers to obtain a GA. The move was partly intended to provide relief to local authorities as hundreds of asylum seekers arrived in Portland that summer.
But now, Blakey said, the relief has become a magnet.
“Places like Portland are running out of resources. The GA program and this ability for people to come here on day one and sign up for GA benefits is what drives that,” he said. I was.
But immigration advocates said these rule changes would have a severe impact on newly arrived people.
“A more restrictive bill would be devastating for the asylum-seeker community,” said Tobin Williamson, advocacy manager for the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition. He said he would hold asylum seekers in bondage while they waited.
“So it would really be a problem if people weren’t able to get some kind of support while they were legally prohibited from working at the federal level,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ambrosio, from Guinea-Bissau, said he was grateful to GA. Because it’s the only option to get off the street while you pay your rent and wait for your work permit.
And he’s optimistic about the apartment he’s found in South Portland.
“If they pay me today, I’ll be home tomorrow, God wills it,” he said.